Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise…
For many of us, these iconic words bring an immediate sense of adventure and nostalgia. Since its inception in 1966, Star Trek has been one of the most prolific science fiction stories ever told. There are countless futuristic aspects that capture our imagination - starships capable of long range space travel, technology that atomizes our bodies and transports it vast distances in mere heartbeats, hand sized medical devices capable of closing up all but the most grievous of wounds, and the list goes on.
But there is one particular piece of technology that solved a vast number of problems for Star Trek. Not only that, but it was crucial to the survival of starships and crew. Ironically, this amazing and vital tech was often exhibited in passing, as simply an afterthought.
Enter, the replicator.
Even the name is as generic as you can get; a device that replicates things. To clarify, and if you're one of the few who isn’t familiar with Star Trek, the replicator provided everything from food to clothing; even parts for the ship!
Why highlight the replicator when there are warp drives, teleporters, and starships? Because unlike those technologies, the replicator is actually feasible and comparable to one of today’s most fascinating breakthroughs;
3D Printing. Now, I realize that even the best printers can't conjure a piece of cheesecake out of thin air like a replicator, but if you put aside the glamorized version for a moment, you'll see that the replicators are just an advanced form of 3D printing.
What exactly is 3D printing?
Well if you ask Oxford Dictionaries it's:
"The action or process of making a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model, typically by laying down many thin layers of a material in succession.”
The definition is pretty straightforward and yet, not entirely clear. One thing that helped me to get a better understanding was comparing 3D printing techniques with traditional manufacturing methods.
Traditional manufacturing uses a method known as subtractive manufacturing (fear not, there won't be any real math in this post!). The name is actually quite apt. You start with something whole and subtract from it until you get what you want. Think about whittling. You start with a block of wood and whittle away (subtract) from it until a shape forms. It's the same principle but on a grander scale; a piece of machinery shaping something out of a larger piece of wood. It could start out as a tree trunk and end up being a slender table leg. But keep in mind, the material used isn't just wood, it could be stone, plastic, etc.
A 3D printer also fabricates things but using a method opposite from subtractive manufacturing, appropriately called additive manufacturing. Materials are added in layers. Exactly how these layers are applied depends on the type of material used, which can be plastic, rubber, paper, even metal.
To build on 3D printings concept of additive manufacturing, let’s look at an example. Let's say you're looking at cube, twirling on a monitor, and thought, “It'd sure be cool if I could hold this cube in my hand.”
A 3D printer will interface with the software, and just like a computer can output a Microsoft Word document to a printer, the specifications of the cube are sent to a printer as well, a very specialized type of printer.
These special printers are very complex but I'll attempt to explain the basics without geekin' out on you too much.
So in our example, let's just keep it simple and say our cube is going to be made of plastic. The printer takes the specs that were sent from the software, and almost like an inkjet printer, applies layer upon layer of plastic until the cube is built. This is a very simplified explanation but it wasn't my goal to make you an expert on the process, merely provide a basis for the good stuff.
For a lot of us, it may still be a stretch to envision Star Trek’s replicators as reality but NASA doesn't think so; just check out this article titled “NASA Looks at 3-D Food Printer for Star Trek-like Replicator”.
As a fiction author, I can't help asking, where else is 3D printing headed? There certainly wasn't a lack of answers during my search. In fact, the number of applications in use today and the ones being explored for the future, are staggering. For that reason (and to help wrap my mind around the enormity of it), I had to limit my investigation to a broader view.
Going back to the Star Trek replicator example, of all the aspects it offered, the one that can't be ignored is how portable and personalized they were. There was a replicator everywhere, to include in the crew's quarters. The same can certainly be said about 3D printers. The ones designed for personal applications can make useful household items and can be toted almost anywhere.
Having a 3D printer for personal use touches on another aspect that is largely ignored by all but huge manufacturing companies; the concept of production decentralization. Right now, we're all used to large corporations mass producing most of our goods. But what happens when people start making their own stuff? But that would require everyone to have their own printer, something I can easily foresee in the future. Don't believe me? Once upon a time ago, not everyone had a TV or microwave…
Anyway, we live in a predominantly centralized society when it comes to goods and services. Decentralization could cause quite a few ripples in the business world. For instance, consider reusable storage containers used in the kitchen. What would the impact be on companies like Tupperware if people started making their own?
Perhaps this wouldn't make substantial impact but what if someone spent the extra money on a higher quality printer that accommodated more types of material? They could open a business, take orders, and cut out all those retail and supply chain middle-men.
Obviously, not everything can be produced in this manner, but already, there are more things available that I can list in this post, and the numbers are growing every day. As always with technology that can change the world, there are good and bad facets; decentralization of manufacturing is no different. Everything from low-quality products (sometimes you really do get what you pay for right?) to dangerous practices (like printing guns for example), will crop up and have to be tackled. But regardless, many are calling the advent of 3D printing a new industrial revolution with decentralization at its core.
Of all the aspect of 3D printing I looked at, it was future applications in the medical field that astounded me the most. Why? Watch this short video clip:
This was taken from the 1997 movie The Fifth Element. While we're far from recreating an entire human being from a leftover hand, it's a lot like every other innovation that's come to pass when, initially, it seemed impossible; never say never right?
The medical community is knee deep in 3D printing and has been for quite some time. Right now, creating different types of prosthetics and other assistive devices appear to dominate medical uses for this technology. Another medical initiative with fantastic possibilities is 3D bioprinting, which has already led to fantastic possibilities. It's a lot like 3D printing but uses organic substances instead of traditional materials like plastic and steel.
Without going into too much detail, the underlying concept is the same; printing in layers. Only, in this case, the material is human cells. Organ printing may not be reality yet but it's easily foreseeable. Right now there's a biotech company called Organovo, who, according to Forbes, has successfully printed “a variety of tissues, including lung, bone, peripheral nerve, cardiac and skeletal muscle, and blood vessel.” Considering the number of people on waiting lists for various organs, and the human body's propensity to reject organs from donors, I'd say this is huge.
You can read the full article here, “Could 3-D Printed Organs Be The Future Of Medicine?”
As much as I love technology like 3D printing, it's a double edged sword for us fiction writers. On one hand, it's like the example I used about microwaves. Before microwaves, an author could include tech like that in their stories and amaze their readers. On the other hand, actually having this tech is wonderful, but it's no longer sci-fi!
Fortunately, technological breakthroughs also challenge authors to create even more imaginative stuff, which is half the fun of writing anyway.